Best of All Time? It’s Messy

For a while, when I was at school, I used to hide myself away in the local library at lunchtimes to block out the whole miserable experience. I remember one of the books I used to read from cover to cover then all over again was a Pele autobiography. Even then, Pele had long been retired and I, probably, had barely seen him play. In the late seventies, there was barely ever live football on TV, outside the major tournaments, but I, and every football fan I knew, thought of Pele as the greatest of all time. But none of us had really ever seen him.

Pele first came to the world’s attention at the age of seventeen  in Sweden in 1958. You can still find grainy footage of the scrawny young teenager looking formidable, alongside his very talented team mates. Then disappeared into relative obscurity for the rest of us until the next World Cup in 1962 and then the one after that in 1966. Pele would be injured in both of those tournaments, kicked off the park by opponents who couldn’t get to him any other way.

By the time Mexico came around in 1970, the world was now in colour. When we watch the highlights of that Brazil team, with Pele as its beating heart, we feel the sway, the excitement, the difference of a team playing the game in a way we’d never seen before. But I was three and I never saw it. By the time I was sitting in the library, secretly eating my sandwiches, I was convinced they were the best team ever, and Pele was the best player. Paradoxically, what seems to have made his legend was not that we had witnessed his genius on a regular basis but more that we had not. Myths are grown this way.

I understand the desire to declare someone the Greatest of all Time, be it Messi, Ronaldo or Chic Charnley. But it must surely be a matter of taste, a completely arbitrary award. I remember Argentina 78 very well, with all the shame and joy involved but it was in 1982, when I hit my teens, that the World Cup became an obsession. The first one that hits you is always the best ever. I can’t imagine anyone being better than Zico or Junior or Socrates. Or even Paulo Rossi or Marco Tardelli. Even the names give me a chill. But I’ve no more right to say that any of them was the best ever. They were ‘my’ best ever though.

If you think that Lionel Messi is the greatest player ever then he is. For you. You’ve perhaps watched every football game he has ever played. Modern TV access allows that.  But the Santos fan who watched Pele week in, week out probably has another view. Puskas. Stanley Matthews. Jim Baxter. And I haven’t even mentioned Diego.

I shouldn’t get as irritated as I do when I hear pundits claiming that the ‘Best Ever’ debate very often involves Messi v Ronaldo v Mbappe or whoever. Because if it is one of those to you, then that’s fine. It’s just that we often dismiss the lived experience of past generations who saw players of such brilliance, out of view of the TV cameras, that we can only read about  in a library. At lunchtimes.

End Point – on banning books

If you’ve seen the Netflix series, ‘Pretend it’s a City’, you’ll have heard Fran Leibowitz discuss reading and say ‘A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.’ I cheered when she said that because it summed up my philosophy of English teaching throughout my career. It addresses the age-old complaint from teenagers that this book has nothing do with them: ‘where are the people like me in this book?’ ‘This book is ancient’. And, while you might think these are fair questions, our job as teachers is to explain why they are important. And to open the door for them and send them on their way as readers.

The problematic ‘canon’ encourages a healthy debate, but when it comes down it, we teach books which we think we lead on to other things, ensuring an engaging study of language and good writing along the way. And, yes, as teachers we are the ones who can recognise what good writing is. It is not our job to close off potentially uncomfortable subjects because the current time makes them so. It is our job to open up a discussion about why such views are out-dated and to challenge them with further reading. 

Over the course of my twenty-odd years in teaching there have been many new texts which have appeared: some of them actually endure. I’m thinking ‘Skellig’ by David Almond or ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. There are others. There are also many which appear fleetingly: departmental budget busters which appear with a movie and then are forgotten; dust catchers, weeping quietly, gathering dust in the text cupboard. There is a very good reason why we have a core of texts to which we regularly return. And not merely because we have them already in our departments. They are building blocks for young people to use, providing them with the tools to go on and read whatever they want.

To think of not teaching texts because we think they discuss out-dated views is tantamount to banning books. In that context, who would feel comfortable? It would make us no better than those states in America who banned Harry Potter because it encouraged witchcraft or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ because it has swearing. As English teachers in Scotland, we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose the texts we take into our classes so, by all means, do or don’t teach something as you please. But it troubles me that we would even have a conversation about  dismissing great writing, without even using the word ‘banning.’

So I’m proud to have taught books like ‘Of Mice and Men’ in both my first and last years in teaching. I’m proud of the time I’ve opened up discussions with young people about racism and the language used in the book. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve moved on to discuss Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter this year. Not to mention topics on the role of women, loneliness, austerity. The only way we, as teachers, can begin to tackle racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia is to open the discussion of challenging views. To do so through Literature has been the greatest pleasure and privilege of my life. 


It’s a strange little word, impact. Impact. We hear it everywhere, use it often. ‘That action of one object forcibly coming into contact with another’ our dictionaries tell us. The impact of a book; the impact of a piece of music, a painting. A movie. The impact of an accident, an illness, a death in the family. But is impact merely the act of making contact, ‘forcibly’, or is it actively concerned with what is left behind? When we use the word ‘impact’ do we consider the aftershock of what we’ve done or has it become merely the act of doing, the ‘forcibly coming in to contact’ with something?

We are, I think, often quick to judge the impact our actions are having, without really considering the long-term consequences of what we do. Twenty years of teaching have taught me that. The quick fix, the celebratory pat on the back, the smiling compliments, all make us feel good but in teaching does impact- real, true and honest impact – really matter? I say this as one who has been blogging about teaching practice since 2011 and realise that this part of my teaching career is coming to an end. No big drama, no big story, I just don’t do it any more. But what impact has it had?

I haven’t blogged in ages; perhaps, in recognition of that, this will be my final post. But for much of what I’ve written I think I can reflect on honestly on the impact my work has had, both good and bad. Much of my writing I’m really proud of, some of the points I’ve tried to make I stick by. But there are others, especially some of the ones on teaching strategies, I wish I’d held back. Those are the ones where I’ve tried something in class and written about it when it seemed to have gone well. Some of them I don’t use anymore; some I can’t really remember using at all, beyond that first flush of enthusiasm.

I’ve learned that, as I wouldn’t really boast about that lasagne recipe until I’d cooked it about ten times – I do boast about it a lot. It’s worth it – I shouldn’t really write about strategies unless I’ve used them many times and can accurately assess whether they work, whether they have ‘impact’ whatever that means. Our time is precious in teaching. The internet has allowed us to share great resources, great ideas, great conversations. But we bandy about terms like ‘creating life-long learners’; how can we ever know? Or more specific to me, ‘life-long readers’; how will I ever know?

Blogging has had a huge impact on me personally. It has allowed me develop ideas more clearly, to articulate my thoughts on education. What I can’t judge is the impact on others. Maybe none. Maybe in a way I could never imagine, good or bad. But there are so many better blogs now, blogs I read with awe and delight. They have an impact on my practice at times because I can spot my ‘areas for development’ and go searching for things to help with that. And that’s perhaps my point. It’s not only up to us to assess the impact our work has. Perhaps ‘impact’ is a word we should use sparingly.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

I’ve been teaching it for over ten years and very few books have the impact on teenagers as this one. Indeed, it’s a book written in the shadows of World War Two America; a time when the concept of the teenager didn’t really exist at all. Of course there were people of that age, but Salinger was aware, as young people came back from the War, that the world wasn’t really for them.

Holden is modelled on that disillusioned voice of teenage America, a generation breaking free from their parents and discovering their own voice. Up until then they’d left school and become their parents: dressing like them, working beside them, listening to the same music. That was about to change and Salinger’s novel was a beacon, shining a light on what was about to happen.

And, as he grew up, we see that rebellion in the face of James Dean: perhaps what Holden in his spoiled, over-protected wee world, always wanted to be. A true rebel, sneering and moody, changing the face of the cinema idol. Or Elvis, swivelling his hips and sending everyone into a frenzy: the girls who loved him; the boys who were jealous of him; the parents who feared him. Both emblematic of a new generation of teenagers breaking free from their conservative past.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Holden would have come kicking and screaming in to the Sixties. Listening to the Beatles and watching their political transformation in a decade often mistakenly remembered for their ‘swinging’ times, it was more an era of huge social division, especially in America. The Equal Rights protests, Vietnam, the Space Race with Russia all arguably led to the massive social and political divisions we see today. Holden’s determination to turn his back on everything that adults had created, ‘to go away and live in a cabin somewhere’, was the personification of that angry frustration: twenty years ahead of its time.

Holden’s fear of becoming an adult is reflected in his own narrow experience. Private boarding schools, little experience of the outside world, his only contact with adults on his three day adventure occur in sleazy hotels and nightclubs. So this is Adulthood? No thanks. Salinger decries the sullying of innocence, the way we change as adults, the way our principles are compromised. In Holden, he reflects a desire to freeze things in time: freeze the moments when we are at our most pure, most idealistic, most free.

And as we plodded through the cynical seventies, finding ourselves outside the Dakota building in New York, on the very streets Holden would walk, we imagine John Lennon dying in the street, looking up at Mark Chapman, a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in his pocket, mistakenly believing he’d done just what Holden would have wanted. Preventing his hero from changing, freezing his image in time.

The next day, somewhere, several hundred miles away, a young lad of fourteen, about to complete his paper round, would open his last copy to read about Lennon and would be hit by a car. He knew nothing of J. D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield. He did know about the Beatles. And he lay there, hearing the approaching ambulance, thinking of John Lennon and looking up to the stars.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

‘It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’

Celebrate Reading

It’s really impressive that Scotland’s First Minister places so much importance in getting kids to read. Front and centre of the approach to tackling the literacy gap, her Reading Challenge has been taken on by schools across the country. And that’s a good thing. Mostly.

When I wrote my book ‘Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere.’ I placed an awful lot of emphasis on reading as a habit. Yes, there are lots of strategies and activities you can use in the classroom, but it was that focus on how we might create the conditions for young people to be readers which was the point of the book, I hoped.

The act of reading is, without a doubt, an act of quiet reflection, a time when we sit quietly, involved in our books. Unless we can develop that habit then everything else is merely window dressing. It’s why I still begin every lesson with ten minutes of complete silence. It may be a difficult, uncomfortable truth but the only way we become readers is by sitting in silence. Any noise, any distraction and that opportunity to grab a reader is gone. It might not look like exciting teaching, but I’ll bet you’re teaching them something that will change their lives.

With World Book Day approaching, I worry that we focus too much on the activities and less on the reading. Having spent two years, almost, reading and researching for my book, I don’t believe that dressing up as a book character has ever encouraged someone to be a reader: I know it’s fun, I can understand that. I also struggle to understand how many of the strategies we see will help reluctant readers to become confident, regulars readers. Sorry. I don’t want to burst bubbles: I see young people enjoying these activities and doing amazing things with their reading. I merely worry that they’ll remember the dress up, the blog, the film they made more than the books they read.

So I’d be much more comfortable if we developed the habit first. And, unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you view it, creating the conditions for them to read daily is the only way. I’d prefer to see the First Minister’s Reading Challenge highlight how long we spend reading rather than how many books young people read. I’d rather we focused on spending money getting good quality books all over our classes, falling into their laps. I’d rather teachers gave up time to read in front of them, not just classroom readers, but books of their own. Seeing adults reading can be transformational.

Then, when we get there, when we have classrooms filled with confident, regular readers, by all means, celebrate that. Let them dress up for the day but insist on book characters, not film adaptations. Let them write about their books, if they want. But try and celebrate their reading along the way. Their ability to sit quietly with a book will last so much longer than a fun day. That they may become life long readers we can only hope. But we can surely give them a leg up allowing the way.

Must Do Better

As part of a panel at Research-ed Scotland in September I made a plea for us to avoid fixating on the obvious problems we have in Scottish Education and recognise and celebrate the great things that are happening out there. It got one of those rather pleasingly muted rounds of applause that an umpire would get at Wimbledon for shushing the crowd but it was nice all the same. However, my point was as much about dealing with the good and the bad rather than cheer-leading. I recall it now as I reflect on what has been a rather frustrating year: frustration at a lack of change; frustration at the often toxic atmosphere in Education at the moment; frustration that we often fail to value what’s important.

I’m in my twentieth year of teaching and in that time I’ve had the privilege to work alongside some of the most astonishingly good teachers you may ever see: patient, knowledgable, constantly looking to improve. Unfortunately it seems that those people are not the ones who get noticed. The Scottish Government’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of new programmes – PEF, Attainment Challenge, First Minster’s Reading Challenge – are all noble gestures in their own way. But I worry that when the time comes to asses impact, I’m not sure what we actually expect to see. What does the success of this new investment in education look like? What happens to the young and keen, pushed to the forefront with their energy and opportunism? Can it be that great people are being sacrificed at the altar of so-called progress?

There are loads of issues linked to the poverty gap, health and well-being issues and attainment, but I’m not convinced that school is always the place to solve them. We have rightly become more concerned with the well-being of the children who enter our schools but we have a superbly well-trained teaching staff with talents in Teaching and Learning. It occurs to me that , and this is merely an opinion, we need to solve the poverty problem through strong and sustained pedagogy; teaching kids well and creating the conditions for them to learn. As a teacher, the more that gets in the way of my ability to do what I do best is not in the best interest of the children I teach.

So, we sideline good old-fashioned Learning and Teaching at our peril. The support teams in our schools who do amazing jobs are heroes to our young people and rightly so. They provide services hitherto unavailable to them and support the needs of thousands of kids previously left to struggle. But schools should be about learning; learning very often needs to be work; work can be hard. Building up the resilience to deal with that might be the greatest gift we provide for our most vulnerable, lowest achieving groups. When we begin to believe that what we are doing is genuinely the best thing for our young people then the Curriculum for Excellence – if it’s still called that – may be seen as a success. We’re not there yet.

I suppose my main point is this: as we move into 2019 we must endeavour to keep great teachers in the classroom. We must do everything we can to remove any obstacle in their way to allow them to do what they do best. We must celebrate the best work of our best teachers, no matter their age or experience. And we need to find a balance between thinking that Scottish Education is going to hell in a handcart and those who refuse to acknowledge that and believe that all is a shiny brochure and a Twitter feed. I love teaching. I just want us to tackle the real problems; the ones which will help every young person in Scotland.

On Reading, or Not Reading

I’ve got a beautiful edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce on my bookshelf: a proud hardback, a deep green, title and author in gold. I bought it in the Dublin Writers Centre, typically touristy, and the date is written on the inner sleeve. It’s an important date, almost, as, the day after, I made my one and only marriage proposal. And there are fewer more important books than ‘Ulysses’: based on The Odyssey, the book tells the tale of one day in Dublin, told through a stream of consciousness, ending in a rather fruity monologue from the main character’s wife. It’s a great book. Probably. It’s just that I’ve never read it.

And even if you have read it, and I’ll bet you probably haven’t, I would doubt there was anything in my summary you’d have added to. Like the aging copy of ‘Moby Dick’ two shelves down. A huge epic tale of Captain Ahab’s search for the whale which took his leg. Long, long stretches of the book go into detail about the bone structure of the whale, the detail is incredible. Herman Melville ended up working in Liverpool Docks, unaware in his lifetime that his book would ever be read. But I have read this one. However, again, you could probably have told me all about it even if you hadn’t.

So, if after reading a book you can barely share more about it than someone who hasn’t read it, what is the point of reading it then? If the cultural capital you glean from the great books is barely more than the blurb, why should I waste another month reading ‘War and Peace’ or ‘David Copperfield’ if I already know the story? And, for young people, why would they now read the Harry Potter series if they can watch all eight(?) movies in a much shorter space of time.

In my own book, ‘Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere’ – you have read it, haven’t you?- I included a whole series of strategies, activities, ideas, which often help us to submerge young people in reading. They’ve all worked for me at some point over the years but I hoped that the main ideas coming through were bigger than mere strategies. I wanted to make the point that the only way we can really get children to read is to give them time to sit in silence and develop the habit. Everything else is just window dressing if we can’t do that.

In a world where it seems unforgivable that young people should ever be, gulp, ‘bored’ then perhaps we do them a disservice by not teaching them the value of how to sit silently in quiet contemplation with a book. It’s not ‘sexy teaching’: your school won’t place a photo of it on the website or Twitter feed. But if we want them to become readers, if we want them to be able to deal with those quieter moments, if we want them to begin to accept ‘boredom’ as a normal part of life, then it is necessary.

There is much evidence to suggest that becoming a reader is transformational. The research is fairly conclusive that being a reader is beneficial. Haven’t actually read most of it though…

Reading and Navel Gazing

There was a time when I’d quite happily pack up old books and take them to the charity shop. I’d spend a short time deciding which ones were not important to me or which ones I’d never read again; which ones I couldn’t quite remember reading and which ones I disliked or never quite got round to. But not any more. I’ve come to realise that the books on my bookshelves are, more often than not, a little part of my life story. And, while I may never even open some of them again, I couldn’t bear to see them go.

The books on my shelves are my story: the greatest books I have ever read, side to side with some of the not so good ones. No matter. They all add up to a life of reading. The books we read made us who we are, almost literally, and every one is as important as the other. Every Enid Blyton book you read helps form you as a reader, even though they might be unreadable now. And, by God, they are unreadable now. Every time you go to your bookshelves they are there: a comforting reminder of your past self.

I keep one shelf free for my ‘to read next’ list. Books I pick up in second-hand shops, books recommended to me through Backlisted podcast, or anything I read about on Twitter. Of course it’s a never-ending list but that’s okay too. I’ll get to them eventually, mostly. Those books say more about my changing taste than any others. If the younger me who read Gabriel Garcia Marquez quite comfortably could chat with the older me reading the Patrick Melrose novels, I wonder how that conversation would go. It seems strange that, while arguing that our reading brains develop over time, I still convince myself that ‘Crime and Punishment’ might be a bit of a slog twenty years after reading it for the first time.

And, to the ghosts of books future: I’m waiting for you. I’ll keep you a space. I’ve no idea in what direction I’ll wander but there are more years behind me than in front of me. Time is limited and my current reading could take me off in a number of directions. I know what I’d like to read but I knew what I wanted to read six weeks again and that didn’t quite work out. You have to make space for things that come along and tempt you. Otherwise the reasons for reading them in the first place get lost.

I’ve spent much of the last few years of my teaching career encouraging young people to read and be readers. So often it’s not about the books though: it’s about the experience of reading those books and what we, as individuals, bring to them or take from them. Otherwise they are merely lumps of paper. But to talk about reading and what it means to be a reader is really important some times. A bit of navel gazing is fine. And that’s all this blog is about.

A research- aware profession? It’s not so easy.

I think one of the greatest problems we’ve seen in teaching has been the apparent disconnect between research being undertaken in the University sector and the reality of what is happening in our schools. If we’re ever to truly consider ourselves a profession then we need to face up to that. I would doubt that there is anyone out there who would question the the importance of research but wonder exactly how many of us access the latest findings, and what do we do with it when we do? There is a huge issue here and I don’t think we need look too far to see the difficulty.

Beyond the world of Twitter, it’s pretty clear that teachers are not in need of any addition to their workload. The preparation, the admin, the feedback provided: we tend to find ways to fill up out working day. And while that doesn’t negate the fact that research-based improvement is essential, it still begs the question of what needs to change to reach that point where our profession is research-informed and comfortable with that. So the next time I see a teacher crying in their car, either before entering school or as they prepare to drive home, asking them to do some further research isn’t on my mind.

We teachers are forever sponges. We meekly accept that other thing we have to do. It’s the nature of it at times, isn’t it? But sponges get full too. We end up doing lots of things adequately rather than a few excellently. So we must inevitably reach the point where any new initiative needs to come at the expense of something else we’ve been told is vital. And that’s not a healthy situation for anyone. For those of us twenty or more years into a forty year career, change is not always as easy as it seems to others. In order to prepare a research-aware profession, support needs to come for above.

Many things happen in schools but I’m more and more convinced that if we sway too far away from a focus on Teaching and Learning then we are in trouble. So, if we are to agree that what happens in class must be the best we can offer then we need to create the conditions for that to happen. Asking teachers to ‘stop doing good things in order to do better ones’, as Dylan William argues, is not an easy task. We can be creatures of habit. But leadership teams must help to develop an environment where we have the space to work together on the best things: that doesn’t exist right now, not enough anyway.

The question we need to ask ourselves as a profession is about what we can afford to drop in order to do these ‘better’ things. We can’t just jump to research because it’s a thing. It needs to be embedded in the everyday routines that we have; it needs to underpin any professional development we undertake. And that ain’t easy. It’s one of the greatest challenges we face in school. Having created an unsustainable workload for our teachers, how do we pull back to ensure there they can be the best they can be, for every kid, in every classroom?

Reading for pleasure is not merely about the reading for pleasure.

Reading ‘Why Baseball Matters’ by Susan Jacobs recently, I was struck by the writer’s concern for the future of the game as a spectator sport. Apparently attendances at games is down massively, especially in those under twenty-five, who seem to prefer to access their sport in small, smart phone friendly chunks. Major League Baseball is very concerned. It seems that the next generation of sports fan has trouble with the patient build up of play, the potential for low scores and the possibility of a game that could last at least three hours. When you consider that the season consists of over 150 games then you might think they have a point.

More recently I had a fascinating conversation with my Higher class about their fears over upcoming exams. Of course, they felt the pressure from all sides about doing their best. They put pressure on themselves. They seemed too believe that they’d been told that failure wasn’t an option and that scared them. But what concerned them most about the actual exam was the necessity of sitting for three hours in silence (two halves of ninety minutes). To most of them silence was anathema; it didn’t figure anywhere in their lives; they didn’t know how to cope with that level of concentration.

Isn’t this just another reason to say that reading is important? I read Twitter with horror at times when I see that some folk think that expecting young people to read for pleasure is unnecessary and ‘not really our job’’. I can’t fathom that; it doesn’t make sense. Of course we want them to be strong readers but without the experience of sitting for long periods in quiet contemplation with a book, then think of all we are losing. How easily we give up on it, on them. How damaging that may be.

Part of my reasoning for starting every lesson with ten minutes of uninterrupted reading is that young people very often don’t get that quiet anywhere else in their school day. Developing the ability to sit still and concentrate on what they are doing – even if it takes many of them a while to get there – is hugely important for them. So reading fore pleasure is not merely about consuming literature, whatever that might mean to the individual. It is about creating the conditions for thinking and contemplation; it is about respecting the silence of others; it is about so much more than just the reading material.

So don’t give up on younger readers. It seems crazy to suggest that being able to read well is enough, that reading is an optional extra. Think of the benefits of being a lifelong reader that we’ve all had. Think of the benefits they’ll reap later when they have developed the ability to concentrate on a baseball game, a football game, a cricket game, a Shakespeare play without reaching for their phones. There are enough distractions for them. Let’s try and give them something that might help them with that.